Some of the biggest myths about depression are that it’s a character flaw, a sign of weakness, a lack of trying, a lack of will, a choice.
You just need to think differently. Remember, happiness is a choice. You just need to suck it up. Be strong! Why aren’t you trying harder? You don’t even have anything to be depressed about!
Even if people see depression as an illness, we often expect individuals to get over it quickly, like the common cold. These myths and misguided expectations only add to the stigma and perpetuate the pain of depression.
In reality, depression is an illness that shatters people emotionally, mentally and physically. There are gradients of depression — mild, moderate and severe — but it’s a serious condition that requires treatment.
Because so many people have a hard time understanding the gravity of depression, we asked different individuals with the illness to describe their experiences and share their favorite descriptions from others. Some of these individuals have recovered while others still struggle.
“I think of [depression] as being encased in a glass table in the middle of your living room, able to see what is going on, but claustrophobic and suffocating, wanting so desperately to get out, but being locked inside,” said Therese Borchard, a blog writer and author of Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes.
She also likened depression to being locked in a dark jail cell. You can “catch a glimpse of light and people’s footsteps from a window above, but [you’re] unable to partake in that life.”
According to Borchard, the best description of depression is in William Styron’s A Darkness Visible: as drowning or suffocating.
“It’s like you have no air, no capability to breathe,” she said. “I’ve had surgery three times in my life: Two C-section births, and one appendectomy. They give you a breathing exercise, a tube that you need to breathe into and the ball goes up. You have to get the ball up to five or so before you are discharged. Depression takes your breath away. That ball can’t move.”
Kate Buchheister, who’s had depression for 20 years, also mentioned having a hard time breathing. “I have a daily feeling of sadness…I want to escape. The feeling that you get before you are about to cry is how I feel all day. With my depression I have no desire to do anything.” She feels like sleeping all the time, even though she isn’t tired.
Buchheister has tried 19 different medications, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and 18 treatments of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). She was hospitalized in July and feels better than before.
“I had terminal numbness,” said Graeme Cowan, author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder. He struggled with depression for five years. His psychiatrist said Cowan’s depression was the worst case he’d ever treated.
“I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t think clearly. My head was in a black cloud and nothing in the outside world had any impact. The only relief that came was through sleep, and my biggest dread was waking up knowing that I had to get through another 15 hours before I could sleep again.”
Cowan interviewed Australian poet Les Murray, who shared this description with him:
“I’d curl up like a burnt insect, lying there in a puddle of misery, a head full of black spinach turning over and over in the saucepan on top of my neck.”
Julie K. Hersh
Julie K. Hersh, author of Struck by Living: From Depression To Hope, also described her depression as numbness, “an absence of feeling,” and a disconnection from loved ones.
“In its worst form depression created a complete disconnection from family and friends. I felt as though I were a ghost in my body. My brain felt as though it were in sludge. Ideas and humor, especially humor, would float past without me understanding until minutes after the fact. It was almost as though English became my second language and I could not keep up with conversation. I could not connect with other people, and normally for me that process is instinctive.”
According to Hersh, “The key [in managing depression] is knowing yourself, knowing your symptoms and pulling yourself back into check when you drift too far from your personal path of wellness.” She believes that no one can define that path for you but yourself.
“The biggest piece of advice I can give anyone dealing with depression is to think about what it takes for you to stay well, write it down and protect it.”
First diagnosed with depression at age 15, Douglas Cootey, who pens the award-winning blog “A Splintered Mind,” has had depression for 32 years.
“Often [depression] is simply an undertone of sadness that plays throughout my day, like a radio station signal that comes and goes,” he said.
“At the worst, depression is a cacophony of low tones that throb and blare over everything in my life, like bass from the car next to you when you are stuck at a traffic light. During those times, I feel as if my chest is weighted down from within. Simple things like changing the channel on the TV seem incredibly exhausting, never mind getting up and moving. My heart feels burdened with sadness, and my sense of self-worth sinks. It is a bad time to make decisions, yet years ago — before I trained myself to act otherwise — many foolish decisions were made while I hated myself stuck there on the couch.”
For Cootey the toughest part when he’s feeling depressed is to take action. “[Y]et when I muster the strength to implement my coping strategies, even in meager, infinitesimal ways, I begin to beat back depression so that the pain subsides.”
Today, with time and treatment, he understands his depression better. “The low notes of sadness still remain, but although I can’t reach out and change the station on the radio, I have become much better at tuning it out.”
Lisa Keith, PsyD, an assistant professor of special education at Fresno Pacific University, struggled with bouts of depression as a child. She was diagnosed with postpartum depression after giving birth to each of her three daughters. In 1997 she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Depression is like being eaten to death from the inside out. First, you think “I just don’t feel well…it’ll pass” … but it doesn’t.
Then you think, “What have I got to be sad about? Nothing.” So, you try and fake it.
Next, your limbs become heavy as though they were encased in cement. Everything becomes an overwhelming effort. So you think “If I just eat the right thing, take the right pill, get enough sleep,” but nothing is ever enough.
Then, the pain starts. The real physical pain. Deep in your chest and no matter how deep the sobs come, it won’t abate. And everything becomes a blur: time, people, memories. And the self-hatred, shame, and guilt get stronger and stronger.
Soon, you rationalize your demise as doing everyone a favor because you’ve become a burden. You stop eating, bathing, and even though you can’t sleep, you lie in bed, listless, with your face covered by the blankets…”
Today, Keith has been stable for nine years thanks to a combination of medications, which took almost a decade to balance. She’s also worked with a therapist, works hard to stay organized, has a good support system and gets eight hours of sleep every night.
Deborah Serani, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of two books on depression, described her depression as “a tired and solemn companion.”
“It accompanied my life in a way that didn’t make me see that I was struggling with an illness. I thought everyone else in the world was sad, sullen and tired all the time.”
She also struggled with concentrating in school, cried frequently, had negative thoughts, and isolated herself from others. She has a chronic form of depression called dysthymia, which intensified into a major depressive disorder.
“I began feeling helpless and hopeless, and spiraled into a despair that hollowed out every part of my mind, body and soul. My depression felt so enormous and painful that I began thinking suicide was the only way to end my torment. Luckily, I stopped in the midst of an attempt and got help. And once I did, my life greatly changed. I got well and healed.”
Serani cited Martha Manning’s description of depression in her 1995 memoir, Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface, as the most powerful she’s ever read:
“Depression is such a cruel punishment. There are no fevers, no rashes, no blood tests to send people scurrying in concern, just the slow erosion of the self, as insidious as cancer. And like cancer, it is essentially a solitary experience: a room in hell with only your name on the door.”
Today, Serani is in remission. She takes medication, participates in psychotherapy and prioritizes her self-care.
Alexa Winchell cited Andrew Solomon’s quote from his book The Noonday Demon as an apt description: “The opposite of depression is not happiness; it is vitality.” She described her own state as being “fundamentally slowed.”
She also noted that depression is “not only a dark night of the soul, but a soul gone dark.” In her journal she recently wrote: “My light is deathly dimmed.”
She further explained: “I’ve lived with major depression since infancy due to a very premature birth in the late 1950s, anoxia, and three months’ isolative incubation without any bonding with my mother. Consumptive metabolic exhaustion is my brain’s functional baseline; I experience the injuries of mentation (thinking, behavior, emotional expression) as the tip of the iceberg. If mood is our brain’s weather, metabolism is its climate, and mental processes are the patterns that set the weather into expression.”
Today, Winchell’s mantra is “One breath at a time.”
Ruth C. White
“Depression is a dark cloud that overshadows everything and rains down either showers or sprinkles on my head,” said Ruth C. White, Ph.D, MPH, MSW, a mental health activist and clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California.
White typically has a lot of energy but when depression strikes, her energy evaporates. Her brain becomes foggy, and the physical debilitation feels like paralysis. The worst part is not knowing if the depression will last for two days or a year, she said.
She further noted:
Sometimes I ache all over. It is frustrating because my life is good and so to feel no control over feelings of overwhelming sadness that makes me want to cry, makes me feel helpless. I want to stay under the covers because every thought and every movement requires immense amounts of energy.
Some days just trying to get to the kitchen to eat seems like an impossible task. And without food the energy loss deepens. My lifeline is my smartphone through which I can stay in touch with the world, even though, sometimes, even texting is exhausting. But I can answer emails and watch Netflix, though, sometimes I can’t even focus enough to watch television so I lie in bed like an empty shell because depression takes me away from myself.
And then it lifts and it’s like it didn’t happen and yet I live knowing that the cloud can come back and dump on me again and rob me of my very active and social life and my career as an intellectual.
Some days White feels “weak” because she’s unable to deal with life’s simple tasks. “And yet I know I am strong because I come out the other side alive and ready to take on life, again.”
As Borchard writes in this beautiful piece:
“I wish people knew that depression is complex, that it is a physiological condition with psychological and spiritual components, and therefore can’t be forced into any neat and tidy box, that healing needs to come from lots of kinds of sources and that every person’s recovery is different…I wish people knew, more than anything else, that there is hope.”